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VINE VOICEon 1 June 2010
Ngaio (it's a Maori name, possibly pronounced "nay -o") Marsh had her first book "A Man Lay Dead" published in 1934 and continued writing whodunnits (32 in all) right up to the year before she died, in 1982.

That's a little less than half the output of Agatha Christie, but then Ms Marsh had only one detective, and in any case had a "day job" in live theatre, as actress and producer.

Combine this with the fact that her stories frequently followed very similar patterns (not so obvious, perhaps, if you don't read all 32, one straight after the other, as I just did), leads me to dispute the claim that Ngaio Marsh was the "Empress" in the golden era of detective fiction. The equal of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers - the "Queens" of detective fiction? Maybe, though personally I'd award the race to Christie, by at least a head.

Still (in case you thought this was going to be a negative review), when you're in that kind of company even coming equal second is a pretty outstanding achievement.

And when you can get three books for almost as little as the previous price of one, this has to be "an offer no true whodunnit fan can refuse"!

In this first book we get the first three Roderick Alleyn mysteries, starting with "A Man Lay Dead".

A big plus for many readers must be the setting, an old-fashioned house party where the murderer strikes and the detective hero arrives within the first 50 pages. There are as many illicit relationships as there are in any edition of "Midsommer Murder", and by introducing a newspaper reporter (Nigel Bathgate) into the story who is both a guest at the houseparty and a friend of the detective, Marsh achieves the trick of giving us multiple perspectives on the action without having to go all dissociated on us.

Although this is one of the "short" books (just slightly longer than the average Agatha Christie), the clever plotting and the genuine (but not outrageous) twist at the end already indicate a long and successful career in writing.

In the second book, Enter a Murderer (1935), we have a play about a murder as the background for a "real life" homicide and other dubious activities. And once again, the victim has become so loathsome by the time they die that you feel like cheering when the dirty deed is done.

Marsh's style tends to go for close-ups rather than car chases and the like, though on this occasion one of theatre people leads the police on a wild goose chase - and pays the ultimate price - before the real killer is revealed. All of which adds up to another neatly presented classic whodunnit of the pre-war period.

The third outing for Alleyn, Fox and Bathgate - The Nursing Home Murder (1935) - has a passing similarity to the Alastair Sim film "Green for Danger", taking place in the claustrophobic world of a nursing home where the Home Secretary is forced to become a patient when he is struck down by peritonities. It proves to be his penultimate resting place. But whodunnit? Was it a member of one of the groups who have threatened the Home sEcretary's life. Or is the murderer literally "closer to the home"?

Marsh makes a good job of keeping up the tension balancing the small group of suspects directly connected with the dead man against the outside threat. And if the solution to the case isn't entirely unexpected, it does all end in a very satisfying 1930s style.

If you've not read any of Marsh's books before, get this trio. It could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
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'A Man lay Dead' is the first of the Roderick Alleyn novels, published in 1934 and introducing the elegant, upper-crust sleuth. It is a classic country house murder, with a small circle of eccentric aristocratic suspects and a young reporter called Nigel Bathgate. Sir Hubert Handesley holds a country house party and five guests have been invited for an enjoyable 'Murder' parlour game. The lights go out - and when they come back on, there is an actual corpse. Handsome, mysterious Charles Rankin is dead. Roderick Alleyn is sent by Scotland Yard, asked (as he so often is) to investigate the deadly doings of his own class. He finds that all players have alibis and the butler is missing. Bolsheviks and international intrigue complicate the plot.
The character of Alleyn seems still to be forming in Ngaio Marsh's mind and it takes a couple more novels before he emerges as the intelligent, sensitive, immensely competent and gentlemanly detective of the later books. There is nothing realistic about this plot, but it is entertainingly written and recreates an elegant, vanished world.
'Enter A Murderer' is the second Alleyn mystery, published in 1935, and the first of the Alleyn books to be given a theatrical setting. There were to be another seven of these before the end of her long career. (Marsh loved the theatre and helped build up a viable professional theatre industry in her native New Zealand, partly through producing Shakespeare plays and touring New Zealand with them.) Alleyn is invited to the Unicorn theatre by Nigel Bathgate, his journalist friend. The new play echoes a quarrel among the cast. Arthur Surbonadier is a good actor and a bad person. The role he really wants has been given to his rival for the affections of the leading lady and Arthur is determined to push him out of the role. Felix, the rival, is a nice person, and everyone is shocked when a gun that he himself loaded with blanks goes off on stage and kills Arthur. Is Felix a murderer? Roderick Alleyn has witnessed the whole thing from his seat in the audience and has the responsibility to solve the murder.
Ngaio Marsh was just beginning as a mystery novelist, but she showed from the start that she was very good at plotting a story, pacing it well and, above all, superb at characterisation. The plot is a bit dated (what else would you expect of a novel written in 1935?) but it is still an enjoyable insight into life and theatricals in the thirties, even though she had not fully got into her stride at this point in her career.
Because of her extensive theatrical experience, and her obvious love of everything to do with it, she is able to make sharply witty comments about actors and acting, especially about degrees of talent and ego.
Nigel Bathgate is Alleyn's friend and unofficial assistant in this investigation. He's actually a bit of a well-educated idiot who gets ahead largely because he knows the right people.
Alleyn is romantically attracted to one of the suspects, in a rather unconvincing way. In the later books, he meets the artist Troy and marries her; she provides the romantic ballast and this proves much more satisfactory as an ongoing link between each novel.
There are plenty of interesting suspects and there's quite a lot of fun before the big 'reveal' in this delightful story from the Golden Age of detective novels. I think Ngaio Marsh is a better writer than Agatha Christie. She could not write such ingenious plots, but she was wittier and had a much richer writing style. This is a gentle, literate, wickedly humorous book with brilliant characters.
This is the only Alleyn novel written in collaboration with someone else. She needed Henry Jellett's contribution because of the medical setting of the book. Alleyn's character is not yet fully consistent, as if she has yet to decide if he is a humorous, slightly camp individual, or the intelligent, sensitive and gentlemanly figure he became.
'The Nursing Home Murder' is the third Alleyn novel. The Home Secretary, Sir Dereck O'Callaghan, drafts a bill to curb anarchist gangs and continues working, although he is in pain from what turns out to be appendicitis. He collapses in the House of Commons, is rushed to hospital and dies during the operation. Suspiciously, the surgeon has quarrelled with him over a woman. The nurses have motives to kill him, too. Alleyn is able to navigate the world of the Home Secretary and his friends and find the solution to this quite complex mystery, which revolves around the use of the drug hyoscene.
Ngaio March is still getting into her stride in this book, but it is enjoyable and moves at a spanking pace and it it gives an interesting glimpse into the medical world of the 1930s. It is entertaining and lays a foundation for the later and more mature Alleyn books.
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on 26 April 2015
I have only read the first book but if you are a fan of old fashioned sleuths this is for you. I wasn't sure what to expect as I have tried reading some of the older crime series and found them dated. But this I couldn't put down, it's one of those books you want to keep reading but can't as you are getting eye strain. I'm just about to start the second book. I will definatly be buying more.
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on 9 July 2014
Quite fun but plots and characters a bit thin. Marsh implies criticism of Dorothy L Sayers in her Introduction but on the evidence of this collection Sayers is much the better writer. Marsh's characters are a bit cardboardy, even for crime fiction, and in the third story there seems to be some worrying endorsement of extreme right-wing views from her detective...
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on 22 January 2015
I have just finished reading all the Ngaio Marsh mysteries and the short stories in the Kindle editions of her work. (Somehow I missed almost all of them over the years, with the exception of Died in the Wool.) From my point of view, as a very exacting sort of mystery reader, Ngaio Marsh started out well with her first book, improved with the second one, and with the third she hit a level of excellence that never faltered from then on. Every one from the third one on was a delight for me. I love the dramatic sense of the stories, the way she can bring me into the physical world of the book, the freedom and variety of characterisations, and the skill with which she does all the "machinations" of the plot. I see variation in the settings, the characters, the flow of the stories, but none at all in the basic quality of the writing. I am about to start all over with the first one again, just for the pleasure of it.
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on 19 September 2014
Wonderful books - full of suspense, yet gentle. The characters are beautifully depicted, be they heroes or villains or victims. Written over 50 years ago but still gripping without being too gory or melodramatic.
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on 17 July 2014
I'm basing this rating on the first novel in this collection "A Man Lay Dead". In a brief introduction the author explains how she came to write the novel on a miserable, rainy day in London. Basically, having just read a whodunnit (she can't remember if it was Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers) she wondered if she could produce a similar effort and so, having bought a pencil, a sharpener and six exercise books, she set to work!

I have to say it seems to me that this rather deliberate attempt at writing a crime story (she doesn't hint at any desire to write anything before this) shows in the sense that it is all rather wooden and a little flimsy in terms of the plot. Her detective (Detective Chief Inspector Alleyn) is a bland and unsympathetic fellow and sadly lacking regarding the prerequisite sidekick (he comes along in a later book; in this book his role is filled by a young reporter, Nigel Bathgate), the story couldn't be a more conventional one for whodunnit (a middle class house party) and the dialogue is often stilted.

The story is fairly short - she doesn't seem to have much of a clue as to how the police would go about investigating a murder and doesn't even have her detective interviewing each of the suspects in any great depth. As a result we don't really get a feel for the suspects, nor do we really get a feel for the setting; despite the classic house party setting there is little atmosphere. Instead the story is eked out by the introduction of a revolutionary themed sub-plot which involves one of the guests (a frankly completely unconvincing Russian doctor) and which necessitates a trip to London for Alleyn. In the end Alleyn has virtually no evidence and so re-enacts the crime to bring the killer out into the light. This denouement is, like the rest of the book, pretty weak.

The book is readable and even ok. Hopefully, the stories will get better as the author learns how to write crime fiction - they must get better or she would never have become as successful as she did!?
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on 4 March 2016
My husband liked the book collection as he likes crime stories and to get 3 books in one is excellent value, some of the terms are old fashioned but add to the charm of the books, will look to see what other collections there are.
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on 2 January 2015
I just enjoy Ngaio Marsh's love of language and her understanding of theatre and of Shakespeare as a source of quotes slipped in to her writing - I never bother with the details of how crimes were done from any classic detective story 'cos I expect them to be well thought out. Her work reflects the period in which she wrote - when detectives were still fun to be with - rather than bad tempered, soul searching drears as of now - perhaps you might take into account that I am well into my 80s and nostalgic for times remembered.
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on 5 September 2013
If you like inspector Alleyn as i do but have always read then in a random order then you might well enjoy this trio which starts at the beginning and also explains how Nigel got in on the act.
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